The plan for our journey across Mongolia was to circle anticlockwise from Ulaanbaatar to the north and then south to the lesser Gobi desert. Having never bothered to look at the itinerary I was completely in the dark about what to expect or even, where we were going. You, gentle reader, will be finding out at the same time as me. The vans we were travelling in were Russian-made four-wheel drive machines. The tour has two vans which we have lovingly dubbed the “Twinkies” due to their shape. The one I travelled in on the first day was the grey Twinkie driven by a portly gentleman named Naidam. The second Twinkie is green. I had been warned by Anton in Irkutsk that Mongolia had few paved roads, most were simply well-travelled paths across the Steppe. By the end of the first day we left the main paved road and discovered this was indeed the case. My stomach travelled up to my teeth quite a few times.
Our first day was a couple-hundred-kilometre drive to the Ambagasyalant Monastery. We were to stay in a tourist Gir camp in the vicinity of the monastery. Before I go any further let me describe a Gir as obviously they will appear numerous times in this journal. A Gir (called a Yurt in Russia and other places) is the traditional dwelling of the nomadic Mongolians. It’s circular in shape, white in colour. The inside is kept up with wooden sticks which fan out from the centre and there is lattice-work around the side. A hole in the centre allows for a smoke stack for the oven, One door adorns the structure and always opened to the south to prevent the prevailing north wind from entering during the winter months. The entire dwelling is protected and covered in felt. It is fairly roomy inside and can sleep a number of people. You might even be able to stand fully inside one of these, though remember to duck as you exit lest you hit your head. I kept forgetting this fine point. It reminds me very much of an evolution of the North American teepees of the aboriginal peoples.
The tourist Gir camps were very well maintained and built Girs specifically for tourists. The toilet facilities were modern and indeed seemed better than staying in a hotel in UB.
The Ambagasyalant Monastary is one of the major monasteries in Mongolia. It was ordered built for the Bogd Khan, the spiritual leader of Mongolia in the 18th Century who was a genius named Zanbazar, by the Manchu Emperor who ruled Mongolia by then. It was left abandoned after the Russian-centric communist government purged the monks from Mongolia. This monastery housed 3000 monks at its height and now had a fledgeling 32 and was in the midst of being renovated. However, by the time our tour of the monastery had reached the third level, all of us had lost interest in continuing. A secret and silent cheer went through most of us on hearing the fourth level was forbidden to outsiders. Despite the length of the tour, the monastery was beautiful, especially in the rainstorm that inundated the place while we were inside.
We spent the evening climbing up hill near the Gir camp to watch the sunset over the Steppe. I had to help a scared Lori descend due to her fear of heights – I had to give her credit for climbing in the first place, she’s a pretty cool chick! We also celebrated Jenny’s birthday with a small get-together and some champagne that Jargalan had brought for the occasion (did I mention she was sweetheart?). Naidam performed a Mongolian song for Jenny and to our great surprise, so did Steve. I think Steve knocked the drivers off their seats.
It was very cool to go to sleep in the Gir – I was again sharing wih Derek – and to wake up early in the morning to cattle being herded by a horseman dressed in traditional Mongolian dress.